Episodes & Studies Volume 1
DURING the Second World War 9038 New Zealanders were taken prisoner, 68 of them sailors, 575 airmen, 8395 soldiers. Of these, 1251 were wounded when captured. Altogether 560 died while prisoners, of their wounds and of disease; at Tarawa, seven New Zealand wireless operators and ten soldiers were murdered by the Japanese.
The great majority of the soldier prisoners were volunteers, victims of the disasters of the early years. In Greece, Crete, Libya 1941, and Egypt 1942, these men, with their contemporaries in service—of whom only a fortunate few were not killed or wounded—bore the brunt of the costly battles for time while the armies and air fleets of victory were being prepared. Many were left on the beaches in Greece and Crete. Having arrived there in good order and with their weapons, they were the unlucky ones whom the Navy could not take away. Very many of them wandered in the mountains for months before being captured, all the while making desperate efforts to escape to Egypt. Three or four hundred succeeded in doing so. Those taken in Libya and in Egypt before Alamein were members of units that had been overrun by tanks. It was almost the customary thing. Our splendid infantry would take a position by a night attack with the bayonet, with none of the air or artillery support that later was always provided. Whatever the opposition they never failed, though usually the losses were grievous. Then the depleted battalions would after daylight be counter-attacked by tanks, infantry, and guns, and when their few and feeble anti-tank guns had been knocked out with their heroic crews, the Panzers, invulnerable to the infantry weapons of the time, would close, trample over the positions, and the choices were surrender or useless death. In those terrible battles we lost, helplessly taken prisoner, many of the best men who ever served this country, and many who with better fortune would have reached high rank. As one man said in a report written after he had escaped—to be killed in a later battle—‘I had thought of death or wounds but never of surrender. Yet there it was.’
The airmen captured were those who survived after being shot down over enemy territory. A very few had the good fortune to escape to neutral countries. The sailors were taken when their ships, merchant ships, were captured. No warships surrendered.
As prisoners they endured years of uncertainty, privation, and frustration. They unremittingly continued the struggle in every way that courage, pride, and ingenuity could suggest. Some escaped in almost incredible exploits, others continuously strove to escape or unselfishly helped those better equipped. In every camp they bore up against adversity, defied and deceived their guards, maintained discipline, soldierly spirit, and pride of race. Only a very few failed.
I saw those who came out of Germany after the war ended. They were thin and strained, but they carried themselves as soldiers and as men who knew that they had acquitted themselves as men in a long and bitter ordeal. I was proud that I had served with them in the hard years.
The full story will be told in the official Prisoner-of-war volume which will be published during 1950.